Disney Star Skai Jackson on Becoming an Accidental Meme

Although she was only 9 years old when she was first asked to set up social media accounts, the "Jessie" actress has become a sort of guru for a younger generation navigating an online world its parents have no idea about.

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Jul 6 2016, 5:30pm

Photo via Twitter

Whether they get a DUI, go to rehab, or have a public breakdown, it's rare to see child stars gracefully transition into adulthood. In the past, tabloids gave audiences a front-row seat to the tumult and struggles of the aging It Kid, from Lindsay Lohan to Macaulay Culkin. In the age of social media, this spotlight has only grown more intense.

Skai Jackson, at 14 years old, understands this better than most—the Disney star has been working in the entertainment industry for her entire life, and most of it has taken place alongside Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. She started modeling before she turned one year old. When she turned nine, she was asked to create social media accounts to promote her Disney channel show, Jessie.

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"Social media was a little hard for me to handle at first, when I was nine," Jackson told me. "I have a lot of followers, but that came with a lot of people I didn't know bullying me."

Now, five years later, Jackson is still a prominent presence in the social media sphere—although not always intentionally. In early April, Jackson appeared on Good Day New York to promote her new Jessie spin-off series, Bunk'd. After Jackson had her hair and makeup done, her mother took a picture of her sitting in a chair, waiting to go on camera. Although her take-no-prisoners expression was the result of exhaustion, Jackson, in perfect hair and makeup, ended up looking serenely skeptical, at peace with—or even proud of—some scheming.

"It was 6 AM in New York, but I was on Cali time, so it was basically 3 AM, and I was so tired," Jackson told me. "I tweeted the picture telling people I was going on TV so they could tune in if they wanted to watch."

Photo by Alex Kruk

Two days later, she'd become a meme. Some of its iterations were the photo, exactly as it was, with such captions as: "When you meet his mom and she says 'Oh so you're the girl he's always on FaceTime with?' but you got an android," and "When he walks back in the room and he sees his phone is disabled for 45 million minutes." Others took more artistic liberties, such as one that was captioned, "When bae says, 'I think we should see other people'" and showed Jackson Photoshopped with eight different hairstyles ranging from totally bald to a clown's rainbow afro.

At first, Jackson was upset. "I started seeing all these different captions for the pictures, which had gone viral, and I didn't understand why it was happening," she said. "I was like, 'Why are people making fun of me?'"

As she started going through the photos, though, she realized people weren't being malicious. (After all, she was compared to Beyoncé.)

"I understand why people were doing it, and I actually love all of them," she said. "I die laughing at all of them." Her personal favorite is a meme where she is Photoshopped, chair and all, into an elevator.

"The caption says something along the lines of, 'When someone's running for the elevator but you press close on them.'"

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In a year when movements such as #OscarsSoWhite have created mainstream conversations about the lack of minority representation in Hollywood—both on screen and behind the camera—Jackson feels a certain responsibility as an actress of color whose Disney shows appeal to young girls. She's recently used her Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook presence to promote the natural hair movement, which pushes back against the whitewashing of beauty standards and societal pressures on black women to chemically straighten their hair.

Although Jackson says she went through a "phase" of using relaxers, in mid-June she posted a picture of herself on Instagram with natural hair, wearing a shirt that says, "Curls & Coils & Kinks." The Instagram was captioned, "Happy Tuesday! #skaiisthelimit #naturalhairdontcare."

"When I was little I only had a few friends who had natural hair," she said. "My motivation for that post is to tell women to keep their hair natural and love it. Everyone is going to go through that phase of not liking their hair, but at the end of the day you're going to regret that you ever put relaxer or anything in your hair."

She's also taken up other causes. In early May, Jackson was again in the spotlight after she confronted rapper Azealia Banks for using racial slurs against former One Direction singer Zayn Malik.

"She was saying so many nasty things, which I thought weren't cool, especially since she was targeting someone's race and color," she said. "So I had to tweet and speak out because a lot of my fans often ask me, 'How do you deal with Twitter trolls? How do you deal with internet bullying?' and I always say, 'Speak up for yourself—if you see something that's not cool, call it out.' And that's what I did."

Though she's had a taste of the brutality of strangers on social media, Jackson said she is much more sympathetic towards kids who actually know the people who are targeting them on different social platforms; she's become a sort of guru for a younger generation navigating a social world its parents have no idea about. When fans ask Jackson how to deal with cyberbullying, her advice is simple: Block them.

"Don't even comment back, because if you're not commenting back, you're not giving them anything else to say," she said. "You're letting them know that you don't even care about what they're saying."

And Jackson knows there are good sides to social media as well—she said she'd like to see television incorporate more current events being discussed on online platforms to encourage more productive conversations. "There is so much going on in world, even just on the internet," she said. "I think TV should push to put some of the positive things going on in shows, and also to discuss more of the negative things so more people can relate."